Textile Society of America




Date of this Version



Textile Narratives & Conversions: Proceedings of the 10th Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, October 11–14, Toronto, Ontario


Copyright 2006 by the author.


The cotton handloom industry of India is one of the great manufacturing institutions of the world: its looms have run continuously for five thousand years. Remnants of cotton thread have been found in the ruins of the Harappan civilization [5000-3500 BC], and the weavers of India have supplied the markets of the world with cotton cloth since at least the first century of the Christian era. The golden age of Indian cotton in recorded history stretches from that time until the beginning of the nineteenth century and there are testaments to the quantity, quality and variety of Indian cotton fabrics scattered through written records. Indian textiles were traded for Roman gold at the time of the Roman Empire; Pliny, the Roman historian of the 1st century AD, calculates the value of imports of Indian fabrics to Rome at a hundred million sesterces [equal at the time to 15 million Indian rupees] every year, and complains that India is draining Rome of her gold. Suleiman, an Arab trader who visits Calicut in 851 A.D writes in his diary “…garments are made in so extraordinary a manner that nowhere else are the like to be seen. These garments are wove to that degree of fineness that they may be drawn through a ring of middling size.” Tome Pires, a Portugese traveler of the 16th century writes in 1515 from Malacca describing the ships that come there from Gujarat and the Coromandel coast, worth eighty to ninety thousand cruzados, carrying cloth of thirty different sorts. Pyrard de Laval in the early 17th century says Indian fabrics clothed “everyone from the Cape of Good Hope to China, man and woman…from head to foot.” Certainly the largest manufactured trade item in the world in pre-industrial times, Indian cotton cloth, paid for in gold and silver, was the source of India’s fabled wealth.

The thriving export trade in cotton textiles was built on the base of domestic industry. Cotton was grown and cloth woven for export as well as for local use in weaving regions throughout the country, each making its own distinctive product. Fine textiles were woven for the nobility, ordinary home-spun for common people. The rich had many fine garments, the finer the more costly. The emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1717) is said to have chided his daughter for being improperly dressed, to which she replied that she had on seven jamas or suits. The common people on the other hand dressed in coarse undyed cloth, as the descriptions of early European travellers and the sketches of European artists show.